Beyond Data and Disney to a
Network Cultural Heritage

by David Green
The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage--or NINCH--is a coalition of member-groups spanning the spectrum of the cultural community, from museums to libraries and educational institutions. NINCH was organized to facilitate participation by this community in the development of the global information infrastructure and, in particular, to help ensure that cultural resources--digitized text, multi-media and 3-D--are both online and widely accessible.



The Manichean Vision

The idea and practice of community on the Net is central to my work. What that community comprises, or whether it can exist at all, is now a major topic of discussion in a multiplicity of forums. For the Internet pioneers who built the first Usenet newsgroups, there wasn't much else for them but the sense of constructing an online community. With the explosive growth of the Web, constant chatter about the National Information Infrastructure, and the (over)use of the metaphor of highways (famous for destroying physical communities); the idea of working together in conscious community has been bypassed by many online afficionados. Some commentators have aptly remarked that the Web looks like a neutron bomb hit it--the intellectual property remains, but where are the people? I'm told that this should soon change. More effective Web-based communications-tools and discussion software will allow for life-like talk and exchange on those designer Web sites like Arts Wire's (where I used to work).

My beef is with the Manichean commentators whose slim (and downbeat) volumes have been selling so briskly. Writers like Clifford Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway) and Mark Slouka (War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality) who castigate the Net as the high-tech monster responsible for consuming people and communities alive. They suggest that thousands of us are leaving the intricate matrix that is our social lives for the monomania of communing online. But how can anyone accept this black-or-white dualism? Electronic networking will never replace those multiple communities each of us inhabits. Cyberspace is already supporting existing communities and creating some new ones.

John Perry Barlow's personal account of his search for virtual community is far more credible than those of the Manichean doomsayers. (See "Is There a There in Cyberspace," Utne Reader, March-April 1995. His short-lived, absolute belief in cyber-community was soon replaced by his realization that today's virtual communities could only partially satisfy his needs--a realization that will be familiar to many of us.

Leveraging Cyberspace: the Social Scientists

Unlike the Manicheans, how do we talk more subtly about the complexities of virtual community? At a recent conference at Xerox PARC (aka Palo Alto Research Center), the place of community and the spreading concern about those not already online rose to the fore at the "Leveraging Cyberspace" gathering.

Sponsored by no less than the White House, the Commerce Department, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and Xerox, the oddly named conference offered the predictable quotient of computer scientists and business people complemented by a few participants on the government's payroll. The surprise "star" of the event turned out to be Robert Putnam, a Harvard social scientist, who wondered aloud why he'd even been invited. It was obvious after his presentation analyzing successful community--with nary a mention of online communities--became the paradigm or touchstone for the entire conference. (His presentation was based on his paper "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," (in The American Prospect, no. 24 (Winter 1996); also available at http://epn.org/prospect/24/24putn.html).

Putnam's research has focused on why Americans' participation in civic and community organizations has declined so dramatically since the 1960s. (Television was the leading contender in a field of a dozen causes.) He's also begun to investigate why a single two-decade period at the end of the 19th century gave birth to so many of our civic and community organizations, including the Kiwanis, the YMCA, and the Boy Scouts of America. He hypothesizes that during such key periods of social development, there is deep and widespread valuing of what he calls "social capital"--those "networks, norms and trust, that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives." Put another way, the unspoken payoff in this long-term perspective is that those who give will also receive. Related to gift-exchange economies, the notion of social capital is fundamental to successful community. This proved an attractive concept for those engaged in 'leveraging cyberspace' and concerned about community. Putnam himself had no answers or even observations about how the Net might operate within his paradigm.

One who did, however, was University of Toronto social scientist, Barry Wellman. In a presentation based on a paper written with Milena Gulia, "Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities," Wellman documents that prior to the Net, there was plenty of discussion about the breakdown of community as a consequence of urbanization, technology, industrialism, bureaucracy and so many other components of modern life. (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/csoc/cinc/wellman.htm, to be anthologized in the University of California Press publication, Communities in Cyberspace, by Peter Kollock and Marc Smith). He also demonstrated that people in real life tend to belong to many communities, few of them bound by locale, and that most of these communities depend on "weak ties" between people--independent, non-intimate relationships--for their functioning.

It seems clear to me that there is social capital on the Net. People distribute free information, they answer questions from strangers, and expect nothing in return other than that their own queries might be answered. Projects such as Net Day, organized to wire schools for the Internet, indicate the social enterprise and commitment to the real world that might be organized over the Web (see especially the dynamic map used to organize participation in California's Net Day). Many community and activist groups report that the Net is an excellent organizing tool to prepare for face-to-face meetings, demonstrations, and the like. The key is to realize how the Net fits into our existing community patterns and to capitalize on its strengths to supplement and reinforce our physical interactions.

Indeed, the battle going on today is surely a battle between social capital and "real" capital--businesses are still trying to figure out how they can make the Web work for them. But, as Wellman notes: "There's still no study: many anecdotes but no organized data--no surveys of who is connected to whom and about what, no time-budget accounts of how many people spend what amount of time virtually communing."

Arts & Humanities

I am now in the business of assisting the cultural community digitize and network cultural resources in as integrated and coherent a way as possible. Yes, this process is about databases and information standards, about description and indexing, in short, it's about information. Such information will be a part of--and I'm arguing that it should be central to--the global information infrastructure. But this work of NINCH is also, even largely, about community and community organizing. The goal of creating a seamless and searchable knowledge base of texts, manuscripts, 3-D objects, still and moving images--all housed in various collections around the globe--cannot be realized without community input. Mapping the terra incognita before us is as important as understanding the specific technical problems that must be surmounted. We cannot simply digitize and be damned; it is critical that before we digitize material that we understand who will be using this material and how they will use it. Technicians and administrators alone cannot do this without the help of artists, librarians, curators, teachers, and researchers who know and value such materials. It is vital that participants in this massive project talk to and understand one another. Certainly much of this community forming will happen online.

My engagement with online activity started with Arts Wire--the largest online, community-arts networks. Although its mission, too, was partly about information (whether learned from Web pages or as questions posed online), from the outset Arts Wire's aim was communication and community building. As the non-electronic infrastructure for the arts--the Endowments and support organizations--strains and cracks, Arts Wire is helping build a new digital infrastructure for this community in concert with arts news groups, and forums such as ArtsEdNet, ArtsEdge, ArtNetWeb, TalkBack! and others that make up this new, electronic arts-ecology. Such efforts form an essential backbone for a community scattered and stressed by recent economic and political exigencies.

In trying to define what is missing from our current online world, Barlow reminds us of the words of artist Jaron Lanier, the inventor of Virtual Reality, who described information as "alienated experience." Making the time we spend at the computer an embracing experience depends as much upon our attitudes towards each other as it does on simply expanding bandwidth in order to make videos download faster over the Web. Only the collective efforts of those in the creative community to transform an overly engineered system into one in which we can comfortably live and create will be sufficient to avoid the scenario of just a national information infrastructure, or just a national entertainment infrastructure, or, worse yet, just a national infotainment infrastructure. A responsive, diverse yet integrated on-line world, should transcend both data and Disney.

Or as Margaret Schlegel, contemplating the emotionally stunted disaster of her businessman-husband Henry Wilcox, put it in E.M. Forster's Howard's End: "Only connect!.... Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." Once we are connected on-line, we can learn from Margaret's deeper vision: the need for integration is paramount in order for us to carry the digital revolution onto a more rewarding plane. Otherwise, in Margaret's terms, we will be unable to create anything other than "meaningless fragments."


David Green is Executive Director of the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage. Until 1996, he was Communications Director for New York Foundation for the Arts, where he was instrumental in the development of Arts Wire.



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